Modern music prioritises showmanship, but spare a thought for the unsung heroes

From kids playing at their first Fleadh Cheoil na h-Éireann to the uncelebrated session musicians of decades past.

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Back home in Ireland last month I paid a visit to the Fleadh Cheoil na h-Éireann, the world’s biggest and most important festival of traditional Irish music and dance. An estimated 400,000 visitors thronged the streets of Sligo this year for the week-long festival, which includes both official competitions and impromptu concerts. The concerts take place in parish halls and theatres but also largely in pubs, or at least those involving adult musicians. The hundreds of children who take part on the other hand, have the streets to themselves, playing on corners and in doorways, often as practice for the competitive events.

The streets of the town are a succession of youngsters playing either alone or in small groups, armed with fiddles, accordions, squeezeboxes, guitars, flutes, bodhráns, tin whistles or uilleann pipes. As my better half pointed out, it has something of a Dickensian air to it, but the mini-concerts, performed as they are by children of different ages, often attempting the same canonical reels and jigs, are also a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of musical ability. The seven year-olds on one street corner playing “Báidín Fheidhlimidh” will in time reach the level of the twelve-year-olds playing “Drowsy Maggie” on another, and so on, until they are old enough themselves to play in licensed premises.

This ascending array of musical technique reflects the ethos of the Fleadh, which as well as being about entertainment, is a celebration of virtuosity by artists whose names usually go unremarked. There is also a Corinthian strain to the proceedings albeit one that some say is under threat; there were grumblings from traditionalists this year about the recent trend for musicians taking money to play, not to mention more high-profile gigs by established names. Not that these plaintive voices have anything against artists receiving a wage, just not during the Fleadh.

Modern popular culture, particularly music, has tended to prioritise personality and showmanship in art. Pop music, even at its best, is about 60 per cent theatre and 40 per cent music. There’s nothing wrong with that, and you’d probably find your favourite band or singer – no matter how low-key they might already be – would be nigh intolerable if they pared back the showmanship. But it is worth remembering the people in the wings, or at the back of the stage, who provide the ballast of the performance but whose names remain unknown to all but music industry insiders. The Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom paid tribute to these stalwarts and they also feature in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, enlisted by the visionary Wilson (played by Paul Dano) to provide the sonic magic that will result in Pet Sounds.

Twenty Feet from Stardom trailer

Love & Mercy trailer

The relationship between Wilson and his charges in this film is one that is replicated often in popular music – the genius of the composer/arranger who needs highly trained virtuoso musicians to realise their creation. Wilson knew that his fellow Beach Boys were not really up to the job of making Pet Sounds all on their own and he called in seasoned pros while they were off on tour. Such a dichotomy of less technically endowed genius/virtuoso journeyman is no doubt unhelpfully crude – the two categories have overlapped in many instances, particularly in jazz, and before Jimmy Page became a world famous guitar hero, he was the most sought-after session guitarist in Swinging London, putting down uncredited classic guitar lines for everyone from The Kinks to The Who to Donovan and The Rolling Stones. But it is certainly true that trained musicians, in oversupply, have often been content to help give texture to the creations of more inspired but also more workaday musicians. (It is also notable how many accomplished classical and jazz musicians have such terrible taste in pop and rock music – the two domains are so much as cross-purposes with one another as to be practically different universes.)

Rock music and its more good-natured sibling pop rely upon a cult of personality to an extent that it often lapses into ridiculous self-parody – not every performer can pull off stage posturing without looking silly. There are some musicians who try to counter this by adopting an impassive stage presence but that is itself a posture. And some people prefer music shorn of the trappings of personality – the rise of rave culture, with its faceless musicians, wordless compositions and white-label 12-inches, was a reaction of sorts against decades of star-centred music culture. I still listen to plenty of that old-fashioned orthodox rock but I don’t care much for the biographical peripherals these days – I can’t remember reading or watching an interview with a band in the past decade and I’d be hard pushed to recognise by sight some of my favourite contemporary musicians.

But I do admire the impressive ordinariness of musical craft, be it in the form of band members who shuns the limelight, session musicians who can step in at short notice and almost instantly be up to speed with the music they are entrusted with or simple jobbing musicians who make a living playing gigs three or four nights a week. In Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary the interviews I found most moving were not those of the singer’s friends or family but the ones with the producers and musicians she worked with, who had a clear love and respect for her and her work but whose professionalism necessarily placed an emotional barrier between her and them. When Amy has her breakdown at that infamous gig in Belgrade, the knowledge that, as her former manager Nick Shymansky says in the voiceover, she had irreparably ruptured her professional trust, makes the scene extra hard to watch. Dependent for their living on a tour she never should have been undertaking, the musicians were probably the most powerless of all the people she knew to help her.

Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse in Amy

This respect I have for musicians and musicianship no doubt stems from the fact that, never having learned music much as a child, I myself can barely play, my ability confined to a vague familiarity with a fretboard and a dozen or so chords. When I was younger, playing a musical instrument was for me an awesome feat of prestidigitation, just as speaking a foreign language would be in later years. The latter has long been demystified for me as I mastered a second language but there is still magic in that pythagorean feat of making an instrument sing. The fact millions of people who do it with no regard for fame or fortune gives the magic an extra resonance.

There is greatness at the margins of fame and beyond in disciplines other than music too. There are character actors who know they will never win an Oscar or a Tony but are foremost in the minds of casting directors when it comes to filling minor roles in Hollywood films and these faces you can’t put a name to are often the best thing in the movie. Other actors, more lowly still, are as happy earning their corn doing voiceovers and motion-capture recordings as they are saying a few lines in big film or TV productions. There are writers who manage to provide for families despite never making a name for themselves outside a small circle of readers (though cynics might say this is true even of the most successful literary writers).

Much of what makes films watchable is the work of technicians whose handiwork is barely perceived by audiences. Some of the most fascinating conversations I have had in life have been with cooks, potters, brewers and other artisans. They are invariably more knowledgable and less pretentious than many people that consume and rhapsodise about their work and they are happy to answer at length even the most ignorant questions about what they do. Every culture and art form has its totems, its stars and its heroes but it is often in anonymity the most brilliant work can be found. In his famous essay on the Citroën DS Roland Barthes compared the unknown workers and designers of modern motor cars to those who contributed to the wonders of gothic cathedrals. Given how cars these days are far drearier looking objects than when Barthes wrote that, it requires a leap of the imagination to see his point. But it bears up every time you consider the music you listen to, the wine you drink or even the couches you sit on.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.